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What to Expect While Traveling in Developing Countries

This post is part of a series called Travel Advice
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Traveling in developing countries will leave you with some of the most authentic and memorable cultural and local experiences; however, this doesn’t come without some culture shock and unique challenges.  But don’t let that deter you from traveling developing countries because many of these countries are the most beautiful, fascinating and worthwhile.  And they’re often less touristy and untouched, which is a definite plus.

Here is my advice and what to expect while traveling in developing countries:

Take Dukoral

Take Dukoral, an over-the-counter oral vaccine for traveler’s diarrhea, before you leave.  I always take it and eat street food, salads and raw fruit in developing countries notorious for stomach problems, with no problems.

Pack a first aid kit

You can easily get many medications at pharmacies in developing countries, but sometimes you may be stuck in a rural area without a pharmacy, so be prepared.  Also, certain medications only exist in western countries.  In South America, I was constantly plagued by various colds and flus, but when I tried to find cold and flu medication, I learned that it doesn’t exist there and it really sucked.

Educate yourself on the cultural differences, dress code and taboos

Do a little research before you leave so you don’t unknowingly offend the locals or embarrass yourself.

Expect a slower pace and be patient

Things won’t be as quick and efficient as you’re used to, so don’t expect things to run as smoothly as they do in your home country.

Expect long travel times

This ties into a having patience with a slower pace- when traveling from city to city in a developing country, short distance often come with very long travel times.  Driving 100-200km can often take 5-8 hours or more because the roads are terrible.  And if you’re taking public transit, there are often many stops along the way and sometimes you can’t get a direct bus to your destination, so you have to take a few transfers in between.

Don’t look at the meat at the local markets 

The markets are far from sanitary places and they’ll make you question your life as a carnivore or confirm your life as a vegetarian.

Eggs are never kept in the fridge

It’s safe and you’ll eventually get used to it.  Australia doesn’t refrigerate their eggs either, if that makes you feel better.

Don’t wear flashy clothes or jewelry

Leave your nice things at home in order to avoid being a target.

Use your common sense 

There are very few rules in developing countries, which has major pros and cons.  For example, just because something doesn’t have a sign saying that it’s unsafe to enter, doesn’t mean that it’s safe to enter.

Pedestrians do not have the right of way

Unlike western countries, where pedestrians can get away with a little too much sometimes, this habit and expectation needs to be forgotten in developing countries.  Traffic is typically a chaotic free-for-all, so you’ll need to exercise caution and common sense.

Get used to poor air quality

And inhaling exhaust fumes.

Lots of garbage and lack of recycling

It’s easy to forget that dealing with garbage responsibly, recycling and caring for the environment are costly services.

Poor doesn’t always equate to unhappiness

Sometimes, you’ll find that people with little money and luxuries are the happiest (as long as they’re not struggling severely).

Power outages are common

Be prepared and pack a small flashlight.

Carry some toilet paper on you 

Most public toilets don’t supply toilet paper.  They often don’t have soap or running water either, so also carry hand sanitizer.

Forget about sitting on a pubic toilet seat until you return home

Many toilets are squat toilets or a hole in the ground, meaning there is no toilet seat.  And if there is a toilet seat, chances are you won’t want to sit on it anyway.  It makes for a great leg workout 😉  Roll up your pants so they don’t touch the floor.

Get used to cold showers 

Hot water is a luxury that we take for granted.  I recommend military style showers to make a cold shower less painful (i.e. quick rinse, turn the water off while soaping and lathering, then water on again for a quick rinse off).

Learn how to bargain

Developing countries operate on bargaining.  Get an idea of how much things should cost and bargain fairly.  A few extra coins is nothing to you, but everything to a vendor.  So don’t be an asshole, but also don’t get hustled.  You’ll learn with practice.

Eat the street food

Contrary to what some people say about street food, some of the best and most authentic food is found on the street.  And it’s cheap.  Use your common sense and judgement and pick a busy stall to ensure fresh food.  If you need more convincing, see Legal Nomads How To Eat Street Food Without Getting Sick.

Expect lots of attention

Unless you blend in with the locals, expect to be stared at.  A lot.  Most developing countries don’t have many minorities, so they’re not used to seeing many people that look different from them.  They’re typically not unfriendly stares.

Get used to using cash

You’ll rarely be able to use your credit or bank card because they aren’t used for most day-to-day transactions.  And always have an emergency stash of cash for if/when your bank or credit card doesn’t work.

The LGBT community needs to practice caution

Unfortunately, in over 70 developing countries, homosexuality is illegal and the punishment is often prison and sometimes even the death penalty.

Be aware of the scams used on tourists

Certain cities, regions and countries have certain popular scams that some locals use to take advantage of tourists.  These scams could potentially rob you of a few dollars to a few hundred or even a few thousand dollars.

Be careful with drugs

Know the laws and proceed with caution to avoid going to jail in a developing country.  Some countries have the death penalty for trafficking drugs.

Choose your transportation wisely  

Safety standards aren’t a thing in many developing countries.  If flying on an internationally recognized major airline isn’t an option, ensure you research information on the local airline’s safety records (same goes for trains and buses).  Input the company’s name and the term “safety record”, “crash” or “blacklist” into an online search.  In mountainous Laos, where the roads are winding with steep drops, I took a small van instead of a huge bus in between cities.

Some locals will feel resentful towards you

If you’re from a rich, western country, you will find that some locals in developing countries will feel some bitterness and resentment towards your luxuries and easier way of life.  You’ll also find that people in developing countries often have a very unrealistic perception of the western lifestyle and wealth, largely due to the media and music videos etc.  They don’t understand that while our wages are higher, that our cost of living is also much higher.  It doesn’t matter if you’re backpacking on a tight budget, you will be viewed as rich purely because you’re traveling, and traveling of any kind is a luxury in developing countries.  You will experience getting ripped off, and sometimes in very large amounts, with the justification that you’re from a rich country.

You will likely become more appreciative about where you’re from

Life in developing countries can be rough, with much more poverty, crime and corruption than you’re accustomed to.  Some of the locals in the very popular developing countries I’ve traveled have said that their country is fun to travel as a tourist, but not to live.

If you’re a woman, you’ll become extra appreciative

Women often have far fewer rights and freedoms in developing countries and domestic abuse is normal.

Learn a few phrases in the local language 

Not everyone can afford to learn English.

Don’t give to children and people who beg

As hard as it is sometimes, giving to beggars promotes a begging culture.  And giving to begging children is even worse because it keeps them out of school.  Even the locals will tell you not to.  If you would like to help out, it is better to do so through a local nonprofit, church or school.

Only carry around what you need on a day/night out

Don’t bring your bank card, credit card, passport and all your money if you don’t need to.

Bring Sunscreen

It’s not cheaper when you get there.

Embrace the differences 🙂

For more on traveling in developing countries, see 4 Surprising Benefits of Travel in Developing Countries and the humorous Traveling to the Third World Is Great and Also It Sucks.

For more general travel tips, see 11 Important Things to Pack For Travel, 14 Important Things to do Before Travel and Tips For Having A Great Travel Experience.

7 thoughts on “What to Expect While Traveling in Developing Countries

  • Zoe Osborne September 8, 2015 at 6:13 PM Reply

    Some great advice! What about accommodation? What would you advise in terms of where to stay and how to book? Should people book ahead or just kind of turn up?

    • thetravelinggypsy September 8, 2015 at 6:22 PM Reply

      Thank you! Glad you found it helpful. For where to stay, I look on Hostelworld and book one of the cheapest, highest rated and most popular hostels in a convenient area amongst all the action, unless a friend recommends a specific hostel. And I always stay in the largest dorm room to save money and to meet more people because I always travel solo. There are times I book ahead, but not too far ahead, and many times I don’t book ahead at all and just show up. I like having the flexibility of deciding as I go, but if it’s a busy season, you typically have to book somewhat ahead of time. I hope that helped! 🙂

      • Zoe Osborne September 9, 2015 at 6:11 PM Reply

        Sounds good. I like flexibility too, but when I travelled in India for example I found that sometimes it was much safer to book ahead! That’s why I asked 🙂

        • thetravelinggypsy September 10, 2015 at 12:45 AM Reply

          When you’re arriving to a new city/country, it’s often nice to book ahead so you have an address to go to

  • AnnaJ September 9, 2015 at 12:38 PM Reply

    Well put! I’m from a developing country so most of these things come naturally to me. But I am in conformity with all your points.

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